AHA! 703 | Interview: Sarah Craig of Caffe Lena
Sarah Craig is the Executive Director of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. For over 26 years, Sarah has made it her mission to plant songs and grow community through folk music. But what exactly is folk music? And what impact does Caffe Lena have on the world of live music performance? See Lara Ayad's interview with Sarah to learn more.
Sarah, welcome to "A House for Arts",
it's such a pleasure to have you.
- Thank you for having me, Lara. It's wonderful to be here.
- And it's so great to have a fan like you,
because you are celebrating over 26 years now,
as the executive director of the famous
Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs. Congratulations!
- Thank you very much.
Yeah, I celebrated my 25th anniversary
just about a week before COVID hit,
and we had a great party at the Caffè
and I'm so glad I squeezed that in.
(Lara laughs) - Yeah,
it's always good to squeeze in a party
before a pandemic, right? - That's right. (laughs)
- It would have been a bigger party
if I'd known what was coming.
- Right, right. Of course.
Yeah, if we had all known.
So I'm actually curious to know first, Sarah,
what is so remarkable about Caffè Lena?
I know that it's a historic place, and I know you've had
some famous guest musicians there as well, right?
- Yeah, we have.
Well, Caffè Lena started in 1968,
really during the peak of the folk revival.
And the folk revival was a big music movement,
really popular among college students,
that was all about digging into
the authentic roots of American music.
And it was a time when the voice
of the people was very important.
The civil rights movement was starting to percolate.
There was interest in union activity.
You know, it was not too long after McCarthyism
had really ripped through the nation. And so that-
- So it was a politically important time, too,
for a folk music revival. - It was a politically
important time, and folk music really became
the music of that moment,
and it was comprised of two parts really.
At first it was really all about
going back to a lot of records that had been made
in the '20s and '30s, and discovering that
a lot of those old Mississippi blues musicians,
and Appalachian mountain folk singers were still alive.
And so people went out and found them,
and brought them to clubs in the Northeast,
and in Chicago, and in San Francisco, and put them on stage.
- And Caffè Lena was one of these places.
- And Caffè Lena became one of those places.
And so people like Mississippi John Hurt,
and Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis
were old blues musicians who came
and played some of their final shows on stage at Caffè Lena.
But at the same time, there was a whole new generation
that was absorbing that canon of folk music.
But pretty soon along came a guy named Bob Dylan,
and not just Bob Dylan, but also Tom Paxton, Emmylou Harris,
that generation of people who started
writing their own songs that were rooted in folk tradition,
but that spoke to the moment.
- Right, I mean, someone like Bob Dylan
is known as a singer-songwriter
and there's a reason for that,
and it's deeply connected to a place like Caffè Lena.
- So, Bob Dylan started his career,
started making a name for himself in Greenwich village,
and his first out of town gig was a weekend at Caffè Lena.
And when he played that first weekend, back in 1961,
he was probably playing mostly traditional folk songs,
rather than his own songs.
But by the time he came in 1962,
he probably had a lot more of his own songs mixed in.
And that whole movement really took off
in places like Caffè Lena.
And one thing that's kind of special about Caffè Lena
is that it's the only surviving venue
from that era- - [Lara] Right.
- that represents that change in American music.
- That's incredible. And I mean,
I want to circle back to the kind of legacy
that Caffè Lena has in this history of folk music revival,
as well as what's going on today with folk music.
But I'm curious to know first,
what impact has COVID had on Caffè Lena,
and has that impact been similar in any way
to that on other types of live music venues,
either in the region or nationally?
- Sure, it's hard to imagine a single aspect
of the music world that hasn't been dramatically
affected by COVID, and not all for the worse,
some for the better.
It's interesting. We're really in the thick of it right now,
and it's hard to know how it's all gonna sort out.
So Caffè Lena is the longest running folk club
in the country, and by gum, we're gonna keep running.
So, even when COVID was causing full shutdown
of the music industry,
we got permission to keep our stage open
with just the sound tech in the room,
about 30 feet back from the stage, and a band onstage.
And we broadcast those shows online. We stream them live,
and we were able to generate paychecks
for about 600 regional musicians through the pandemic.
- So that's a positive then,
that's one of the positives- - That was a positive.
- that's come out of this. - A lot people who would not
normally have had access to our stage,
got to play shows on the stage,
get one of the only music paychecks of the year.
And our donors generated more than $100,000
in income for those musicians. - [Lara] Incredible.
- So I'm really proud of that.
And there was a scrappy attitude across the music world
that kept a lot of musicians afloat and venues afloat.
With that said, I have decided that
I need to take my Rolodex and just throw it out the window,
because nobody works for the same agency anymore.
It's all been mixed up. There are musicians
that decided to retire. There are clubs that are gone.
There's very few links between venues right now.
So when a musician goes out on tour,
they need to have a certain density of gigs
to make it economically viable.
And there's a show available here,
there's a show available there,
and there's like nothing in between.
So it's very hard to tour right now.
- Right, right. It sounds like this
is a pretty difficult situation for musicians.
And what I understand too, Sarah,
is that when a lot of larger music venues
are also not signing on these kind of newer folk musicians,
because they're not these tried and true names,
am I correct about that? - Well, sure, yeah.
I mean, if you're going to try
and make up for a year of loss and you have,
you know, two shows to present that week,
you're probably gonna go with the tried and true.
And this is of real concern to me
because it affects the pipeline of emerging artists
coming into the music industry right now.
It's not gonna be easy for them for a while,
until things really stabilize again.
And Caffè Lena has always invested very heavily
in new artists. I mean, starting with Bob Dylan
and, you know, ever since then,
our greatest moments have always been when
we took a chance on something new. So I'm a strong-
- Look at where that took them.
Look at where it took these musicians.
- Yes! Exactly.
I mean, they don't all end up being household names
that get Nobel Prizes, but... (laughs)
- But they're given the chance, right?
- But they're given the chance,
and it may be a perfectly magical evening.
To tell you the truth, Bob Dylan was not particularly
well received by the audience at Caffè Lena.
- Fascinating! So how did you get so interested
in this remarkable venue in the '90s?
Are you a musician yourself?
Was it the people that drew you there?
- You know, it was just a kind of
convergence of opportunities.
I happened to be a real fan of folk music,
and I love the nonprofit world.
I was determined to stay in the nonprofit world,
and I loved that folk music had these early ties
to social justice movements, and...
- Which has seen a real resurgence recently, right?
People talk a lot about social justice.
- Yeah, and, I want to be clear,
folk music does not have a perfect track record
along those lines. It's the music of the people,
and a lot of it comes from the Mountain South.
And I don't want to, you know,
make judgements about big groups of people,
but you can imagine that it's not always been progressive.
- Yeah. - And so nonetheless,
there was real possibility at Caffè Lena.
I loved how grassroots it was.
I loved how scrappy and small it was.
And it was just a wonderful canvas to paint ideas on,
and see what stuck and see what didn't,
and it's just been a great life.
It's really been pretty much my whole adult life.
I'm 53 and I've been there for 26 years.
- Well, that's time well spent, right Sarah?
I'm wondering, you know, thinking about folk music today,
and not just, you know, being played at Caffè Lena,
which is fantastic, but I'm wondering about
the legacy of folk music now.
Because I think when people think of folk music,
at least when some people do, you know,
that it's sometimes referred to
as Americana or American folk, like roots music.
You know, how does it live on today among us?
What are some myths, too, about folk music
that you think maybe Caffè Lena helps to dispel?
And how is folk music being played and live on,
how is it being preserved now?
- Yeah, it's interesting about what even is folk music.
I mean, that's kind of, it's hard to even
answer your question without saying, what is folk music?
I mean, if you ask iTunes what folk music is,
it's gonna be any band that has an acoustic guitar
in the lineup, is gonna count as folk music,
according to iTunes.
If you ask some of our more traditional artists
on the roster at Caffè Lena, they're gonna say,
if you know, who wrote the song, then it's not a folk song.
- Interesting. - Okay?
So it's like, because it's,
it's not just part of the people's tradition
that's been handed mouth, to mouth, to mouth.
- Right. - That's folk music.
So, I don't take a position in that.
Basically I will put anything on stage
that can trace its lineage to roots music in some way.
I want the instrumentation to be primarily acoustic,
and I want it to be performed in a folk style.
By which, I mean, there's a real engagement
between the stage and the audience.
It's breaking down that barrier between stage and audience.
It's not about a star behind the lights.
Who's just entertaining. - [Lara] Right.
- It's about creating something as a community
- Right. So, there's something
about the space of Caffè Lena,
and I've seen pictures of it too,
and many people know it. It's very intimate, right?
- It is very intimate.
- You're sitting there, literally, I mean,
it's like I'm as close to you as I would be
to the musician, if I was an audience member.
- Yeah, you might. If you're in the front row
on a sold-out night at Caffè Lena,
you are going to be literally about
five or six feet away from the performer.
- [Lara] Incredible.
- And you will be sharing your table
with somebody else who you haven't met before.
We mix parties at the tables. So it really does create
a shared community experience of the music.
And so, I will put anything on that stage,
any kind of instrumentation, anything that I think
is gonna really land in that room?
The one thing I won't flex on is that there has to be
that relationship with the audience.
- Right. It sounds like this kind of sense
of intimacy and closeness,
the sense of community is something
people especially want right now.
So, how can viewers learn more about the upcoming programs
and shows that are coming up at Caffè Lena?
- Sure. Well, you know,
we're forging ahead right now,
and we have a complete schedule right up through
the end of the year. Right now, you can find out about
all of our shows happening through the end of September,
and are on our website and within, you know, by mid-August,
we'll have the rest of the year posted up there.
- That's amazing. That sounds fantastic.
Thank you so much
for sharing that, Sarah. - Yeah.
- It was so great to have you on "A House for Arts".